Into The Sea

September 13th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

Exodus 14:19-31

Too Good to Be True?

Do you remember the feeling that you had when your boss said you could leave work early, but you’d still get paid for the full day?

Or in school, when you were given a special task to do which required you to leave the classroom? Perhaps your teacher asked you to take a letter to the principal’s office and you were given that rare golden opportunity to skip out on some class time?

Do you remember that strange mixture of feelings that you had? Joy and excitement, but with a slight twinge of nervousness. It feels too good to be true. What if your boss changes her mind? What if another teacher catches you in the hallway and doesn’t believe your story and you get in trouble for not having a hall pass?

That’s just a small taste of what it probably felt like for the Israelites when they left Egypt. After 400 years of being in slavery, they could hardly believe what was happening. Did Pharaoh really say that they could leave and not come back? This had to be too good to be true. 

I imagine the Israelites sort of speedwalking out of the land of Goshen. Past pharaoh’s palace. Past the ancient statues of kings and queens, through the city gates, past the pyramids that their ancestors had helped build. Off in the distance they could see the famous statue of the Sphinx.

Finally they were out in the wilderness, far away from the city, with the Nile now several miles behind them.

And yet they didn’t feel that they could quite breath easily. All the time they kept looking back over their shoulders, expecting that at any moment Pharaoh and his army might come chasing after them, or that perhaps they might wake up and realize that this was all the dream.

Some of the younger ones started singing and dancing, caught up in the excitement of the moment, but they were quickly hushed. Don’t make too much noise! We’re not safe yet.

But how would they ever know if they were safe? How could they ever stop looking over their shoulders? How could they ever live completely free from fear, when Pharaoh and his army were still out there?

The Red Sea

And then, just when they were starting to feel that they might be able to savor the sweet taste of freedom after all, there it was in front of them. The Red Sea. Their hearts sank. It might as well have been an ocean. How would they ever get across? They had no boats, most of them didn’t even know how to swim. And plus they had all of their possessions with them.

They didn’t know the geography, but some thought that perhaps they could just go around. Others felt that it was an unconquerable obstacle, and they might as well turn around and go back to Egypt now. Finally, word spread through the crowd that they were going to set up camp for the night. 

That’s when they saw it. The small cloud of dust, behind them on the horizon. Was that just me, or was that a tremor underneath our feet? The Israelites watched in horror as the cloud of dust grew closer and larger. And then, emerging from the cloud of dust, they could make out the shadowy figures of enemy chariots riding towards them. The ground shook beneath their feet as the chariots approached.

Shrieks of fear turned into shouts of anger, as the crowd became enraged at the one who had led them out of Egypt. “Moses, why did you bring us out into this wilderness just to be killed by Pharaoh and his army? Why couldn’t you just let us remain slaves in Egypt?”

The cloud that had been in front of them up until this point, leading and guiding their way, drifted behind them, blocking pharaoh’s army from view, and protecting the Israelites for the time being. But the Israelites knew they were still there, just behind the cloud, and it was only a matter of time before Pharaoh’s army would catch up to them.

As night fell, they knew that there was nothing they could do. Reluctantly they lay down for the night, tossing and turning all night, as they tried to catch a few hours of fitful sleep.

Surely they would be captured in the morning. The only question was, would Pharaoh slaughter them there, or would they be taken, disgraced and humiliated, in chains back to Egypt?

For the Israelites, there was nothing they could do, nowhere they could go. The Red Sea in front of them, Pharaoh’s army behind them, it seemed that all hope was lost.

An Impossible Situation

The Israelites were in a seemingly impossible situation. But as it has often been said, our God is the God of the impossible. And God can make a way where there is no way. Though the Israelites had lost all hope, God still had a purpose for them, and God still had a plan.

You see, while it seemed that the Red Sea was an impenetrable barrier and perhaps even the means of their downfall, it was in actuality the means by which God had orchestrated their escape.

It was in fact God who had led them to the Red Sea. God could have sent them a different way. But earlier in chapter 14, we see that God specifically told Moses to have the people turn back. 

“God said to Moses,Tell the Israelites to turn back and camp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall camp opposite it, by the sea’” (Ex. 14:2).

Why did God tell the people to turn back rather than to keep going? It was so that Pharaoh would say of the Israelites, “‘They are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them’” (Ex. 14:3). God told Moses, “‘I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them’” (Ex. 14:2-4a).

God wanted Pharaoh to pursue the Israelites! God wanted Pharaoh to think that the Israelites were wandering around aimlessly in the desert, that they would be easy prey. God wanted Pharaoh to change his mind, and to come chasing after the Israelites!

Why in the world would God put the Israelites through this, when they had already been through so much?

I believe that God knew that the Israelites would always live their lives in fear of Pharaoh’s retaliation, that they would never be fully able to trust God, they would always be looking back over their shoulders, unless they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Pharaoh and his army were no longer a threat to them.

It wasn’t enough for the Israelites to be physically free. God wanted them to be emotionally and psychologically and spiritually free as well. Free from worry and fear and anxiety, freed to truly live and breathe and to experience and enjoy the land that God had promised to them.

And so God orchestrated events so that Pharaoh and his army were destroyed right before their eyes, so that the Israelites would know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they did not need to live in fear.

During the night, while the Isrealites lay awake in their beds trembling with fear, God was already at work, causing a strong wind to drive the waters of the sea back, and turning the sea into dry ground. The Israelites crossed safely to the other side, but when the Egyptian army tried to chase after them, “The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained” (Ex. 14:28, 30). And the Bible says, “Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses” (Ex. 14:31).

The Isrealites saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. They saw the great work that the Lord did. And they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses. Even though the situation they were in felt impossible, God took that seemingly impossible situation and turned it around for their good. Now they were truly free.

What’s Your Red Sea?

Friends, I don’t know what “Red Sea” you might be facing today — what seemingly impossible situation might be confronting you. Perhaps it’s a medical diagnosis. Perhaps you’re in a financial bind, and you don’t see a way out. Perhaps you’re facing increasing responsibilities, difficult coworkers, challenging or unstable living or working situations. 

Whatever it is that you might be facing this morning that seems impossible, know that our God is the God of the impossible. If God can turn a barrier like the Red Sea and turn it into a means of escape, then surely God can make a way in your situation as well.

Earlier in chapter 14, Moses told the Israelites, “‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still’” (Ex. 14:13-14).

Do not be afraid. Stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today. The Lord will fight for you. You have only to keep still. What an amazing God we serve! What an awesome, and mighty, and powerful God God is.

The Way of the Cross

Ultimately, through Jesus, God made a way for us, where there seemed to be no way. Eph. chapter 2 verse 1 says that we were dead in our “trespasses and sins ” and Rom. 5:10 says “we were God’s enemies.” The sin and rebellion of humanity pitted us against the very God who created us and loves us. The situation that we were in seemed impossible. It seemed that all hope was lost. There was no way we could lift ourselves up, no way we could save ourselves, no way we could achieve our own freedom from slavery to sin. 

But. Rom. 5:8 says, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Jesus, hanging there on the cross, dying in our place, loved us, and forgave us, and achieved for us the salvation that we could never have achieved for ourselves.

God is the God of the impossible. The God who died for the ungodly, the God who loves even the unlovely.

How do we live in response to a God who loves us with this kind of love? We recognize that our lives are in God’s hands. We look to Jesus for our salvation and our strength. We place our trust in God and live into the freedom that God offers. Freedom from worry and fear. Freedom from the need to impress others or to prove our own self-worth. Free to take God at God’s word, free to rest in God’s promises, knowing that the Lord will fight our battles for us. We need only to stand still.

Praises and Swords (?)

September 6th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

Psalm 149; Matthew 18:15-20

“House of Shalom”

In 2008, my wife and I felt God was leading us to take a huge step of faith. At the time we were living in a small rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore. We had a young child and another on the way. We were involved in full-time college campus ministry, and we had been invited to start a summer service program to connect college students with various non-profits and ministries throughout the city where they could serve during their spring breaks and summers.

Around that time we became aware of a rather large property that was for sale, and we felt it would be perfect to host the sort of summer and spring break program that we had been asked to lead. It was actually a rather massive house that had been split up into four different apartment units, but had been semi-converted back into a single family home. It was way out of our price range, but we prayed about it a lot, and God provided the money for us to put a down payment down, and we moved forward.

To make it work financially, we rented out parts of the house year-round to grad students and alumni, and it became a sort of communal living situation. Our desire was for the house to be a place of peace in a community that was often plagued by violence, and so we named the house “House of Shalom” — the Hebrew word for peace and wholeness.

A Stone’s Throw

As you can imagine, our rather large and active community house stood out in the neighborhood. Not only did we have a lot of college students hanging around all the time in a community where there weren’t a lot of college students, but the house itself was rather unique — much larger and in much better condition than many of the other properties in the surrounding neighborhoods, where almost half of the houses and storefronts were vacant or boarded up.

Eventually it seemed that our community house began to draw attention from some of the neighborhood kids. Perhaps it was a mixture of mischief and curiosity, or perhaps it was something else, but it seemed that one summer our house became target practice for those who wanted to hone their rock-throwing skills. On three separate occasions, rocks were thrown through our windows, shattering the window pan and scattering broken pieces of glass all over our living room and hallway. 

As you can imagine, this was rather upsetting, especially since we didn’t know who was doing it or why! We felt especially vulnerable since our house was located on the corner and we had a LOT of windows (my wife once counted that the house had 50 windows!) and we feared for the safety of our children. 

Around that same time someone keyed our minivan, inscribing curse words onto every panel of our van, costing us several thousand dollars in repairs.

At War

At this point, anger and frustration was welling up inside of me, to the point where I started having violent dreams in which I enacted revenge on the perpetrators for all of the pain and suffering they had put us through.

It seemed at that point that House of Shalom was at war with the very neighborhood we had originally wanted to bless. It seemed our house was not so much a place of peace after all.

Psalm 149

In psalm 149 something similar seems to have happened for the Israelite people. God had called their ancestor Abraham to leave his home country and go to a new land, telling Abraham “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:1-3).

Abraham was called to be a blessing to others, and God promised to bless the nation that would be descended from him, so that through them all the families and nations on the earth would be blessed.

Now, Psalm 149 starts out great. It’s a beautiful, soaring psalm of praise. 

Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the faithful. Let Israel be glad in its Maker; let the children of Zion rejoice in their King. Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre. For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with victory. Let the faithful exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their couches. (Psalm 149:1-5).

I love the festive imagery, the people of Israel dancing in the streets and making beautiful music to God, singing for joy on their couches.

But then seemingly out of nowhere, the Psalm takes a violent turn:

Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, 

to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron, to execute on them the judgment decreed. This is glory for all his faithful ones. Praise the Lord! (Psalm 149:6-9).

What happened to singing for joy on their couches? Where are the musical instruments, the tamborines and lyres? Why have they put down their tambourines and picked up two-edged swords? Why are they executing vengeance on the nations, rather than blessing them???

A Ritual Reenactment of God’s Judgement

But Biblical scholars tell us that Psalm 149 may not be so much a call to arms, as it is a liturgical reenactment of how God has fought their battles in the past. Rather than a rallying warcry for the people to go out on the battlefield and wipe out their enemies, it’s a worshipful reminder of God’s victorious rule and reign over all the nations.

There were times in Israel’s history when God used the Israelite nation to bring judgement on other nations. But the promise throughout the Hebrew Scriptures was that God would fight their battles for them. Think of how God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, striking down the firstborn of the Egyptians, how God miraculously parted the Red Sea so the Israelites could pass through, but then caused the water to come crashing back down again, swallowing up the Eyptian army. God made the walls of Jericho fall, God gave David the strength and courage to fight against Goliath. All throughout the Bible, it was God behind the scenes, fighting their battles, sometimes involving them, sometimes not, but always at work on their behalf.

Live Peaceably With All

Last week in our New Testament Lesson, Paul told the Christians in Rome to Bless those who persecute you…Do not repay anyone evil for evil…If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all….never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:14-21).

In Romans 13 Paul tells us, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). 

Jesus takes it a step further, providing a sort of how-to manual for dealing with conflict within the church. He says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one” (Matt. 18:15), and he goes on to provide instructions of what to do if that person will not listen to you.

The goal here, in both Paul and Jesus’s teachings, is not to get revenge or even to ensure that the one who has wronged us gets punished, but instead to find a way to live at peace, to live our lives without clouds of anger or bitterness hanging over our heads. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”

“House of Shalom” Part 2

We never found out exactly who threw the rocks through our windows or why. But one night when we heard a rock hit the side of our house, I ran out of the house and saw a group of kids running away. I ran after them and caught up with one of the kids who wasn’t as fast at running as the others. She denied throwing the rocks but said she knew who did it. I pleaded with her to tell the other kids to stop, and I may have threatened to call the police if it happened again. I also told her that we had a baby in the house, that it wasn’t an innocent prank, but that it was actually really damaging and dangerous. It seems like the message got through, because we lived in that house for another 6 or 7 years and never had another rock get thrown through our windows.

We did eventually find out who had vandalized our minivan. We involved the police and they arrested her, but we did not end up going to trial. Instead we were able to sit down with her and her mother and social worker in the presence of a professional mediator and talk about how she had hurt us. We were able to set boundaries to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again.

In both of those situations, staring in the faces of the kids who had vandalized our property and expressing how they had hurt us helped move me from anger to compassion. I began to feel sorry for them, knowing that the future was not very bright for them unless their energy could be redirected in a more positive direction.

Although we knew we couldn’t help the rock-throwers (since we didn’t even know who they were!), we decided that we could do something to help other kids in the neighborhood. Along with our college students and alumni we started a summer day camp that ran for 4 summers in Southwest Baltimore, providing safe and healthy activities, snacks, crafts, and Bible lessons, giving kids in the community a chance to interact with college students who became friends and mentor to them, and who told them how much Jesus loves them. 

Let Go, and Let God.

We must do everything within our power to live at peace with everyone. When others hurt us, we owe it to them to let them know, following the pattern that Jesus set forth for us. 

But there will be those times when others hurt us and we do not have the opportunity to confront them. Perhaps we don’t know who they are, or perhaps they choose not to listen.

It is normal and natural in those times to feel anger. But we have a choice. We can keep track of all the wrongs that others have done to us. We can let the anger fester and bitterness. We can spend our lives constantly on the lookout for ways to get revenge. 

Or we can let go and let God take control, believing that God is indeed looking out for us and fighting our battles. We can trust that wrongs will eventually be made right, that evil will one day be done away with, and that in the end God will sort it out. We can follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who forgave his enemies while hanging on the cross, saying “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” 

And so let us do everything within our power to live at peace with all people. Let us seek the peace and healing and forgiveness that Jesus offers, and let us “owe no one anything, except to love one another.”

Holding Fast

August 30th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:24-25 

In Romans 12, Paul instructs us to “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” (Rom. 12:9).

Some of us have no problem with the “hating what is evil” part — especially when that evil is found in other people! Some people just love to point out other people’s flaws. And if social media is any indication of how people really feel, it seems that there are vast numbers of people who just go around being really angry at everything and everyone in the world that they think is wrong. 

In truth, the “evil” that Paul is talking about here most likely has to do with the evil that’s inside each and every one of us — or at the very least, the evil desires that we all wrestle with.

Paul starts off Romans chapter 12 with an appeal to the brothers and sisters in Rome to present their “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1) and to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). He then goes on to instruct them to not think too highly of themselves, but to consider each other members of the same body — although every believer has different gifts, each person is significant and important to the Body of Christ.

So, when Paul says we should “hate what is evil” he does not seem to be encouraging us to direct our hatred towards other people — but rather that we should do everything within our power to refrain from allowing evil to get a foothold in our lives. 

The word translated “hate” here can also be translated “dislike” or “abhor” — in other words, to literally have a horror of. When we’ve offered our lives to God as living sacrifices, and when we have been “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds,” then evil should become repugnant to us. 

But Paul does not dwell on the topic of evil for too long. Immediately following his exhortation to hate what is evil, he encourages us to “hold fast to what is good” (Rom. 12:9).

This is often much harder to do, and so Paul provides a list of what that looks like: Love one another, show honor to others, be zealous in serving the Lord, be patient and persistent in prayer, be generous and hospitable toward others, do not seek revenge, and if it is possible, try to live at peace with everyone.

That is quite a list! If we were to try to do all of those things, we’d be so busy we probably wouldn’t have time to look down on or despise others who aren’t doing the types of things we think they ought to be doing. 

And maybe that’s Paul’s point. 

You see, so often people think the Bible is just one big list of things that we’re not supposed to do, and that becoming a Christian means giving up or avoiding everything that might possibly be considered “fun.” And in truth it does seem like there are some Christians who walk around clutching the Bible and trying to make sure that no one around them is having fun.

But perhaps Paul is reminding us that following Jesus is not just about getting rid of all the bad and evil desires in our lives. It’s also about doing good in this world.

Think about it. Almost every religion of the world has something equivalent to what is often called “The Golden Rule.” But often this rule is stated in the negative:

  • The Jewish rabbi Hillel said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”
  • Confucius said, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”
  • Hinduism says: “Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.”
  • Buddhism: Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.

In contrast, Jesus said “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12). 

Following Jesus should lead not just to the avoidance of things that are harmful, but should propel us onward and upward, to work for positive change, and to follow Jesus in becoming forces for good in this world. 

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said it this way: 

“Do all the good you can, By all the means you can,

In all the ways you can, In all the places you can,

At all the times you can, To all the people you can,

As long as ever you can.”

Of course in saying that, I realize there can also be a danger in a different direction — of thinking of the Bible as sort of cookbook or recipe, where we just need to go down the list and make sure that we’re including all the right ingredients, doing everything in the right order to make sure that we’re doing everything just right.

Paul’s list here in Romans is not really a list of things that can be checked off — where you just complete certain tasks and then move onto the next step.

Instead, it’s more like a spice rack. Using spices in cooking is not really an exact science. One person might like salt and pepper on everything, while someone else might prefer oregano and basil, or curry and turmeric. Many of us here in Maryland like Old Bay, whereas most people throughout the world have never heard of it. In fact, my wife and I love Old Bay seasoning so much that we often put it on our scrambled eggs in the morning!

That’s sort of the spirit of Paul’s list here. He isn’t telling us to work through this list in order, checking off the ingredients and moving onto the next thing.

Instead, he’s encouraging us to be in tune with what’s happening in the world and with the people around us, and to season accordingly. To rejoice with those who rejoice, and to weep with those who weep. If and when we face persecution, we should bless those who persecute us. When someone does evil to us, we should not repay that person with evil. We should live in harmony with each other, and we shouldn’t claim to be wiser than we are. 

Just like some spices might sit on our shelves for long periods of time in between usage, we may not have opportunity to do some of these things very often. But the important thing is that we’re allowing God to lead us and guide us, and to form us and shape us more and more into Christ’s likeness. We need to hold fast to what is good, not lag in our zeal, and not lose our passion in serving the Lord. And, just like adding spices to a dish, the activities that we’re involved with in this world should have an added benefit. We shouldn’t just go around doing good things to make ourselves feel good. We should respond to real needs and situations. As Paul says, our love should “be genuine.”

Doing good will not always come easily. That’s why we need to “hold fast” to what is good. There’s a current, an undertow that threatens to pull us under. 

Sometimes the current is not so obvious. The other week I had the chance to go kayaking on the Potomac River. It was a gorgeous, bright and sunny day. There was barely any wind, and when you looked at the water it didn’t even appear to be moving. And yet there was a very gentle but strong current. Paddling downstream took hardly any effort at all, but when we turned our kayaks around to paddle back upstream we could definitely feel the current. 

Following Jesus is like paddling upstream. It takes conscious effort to not get swept along with the current. We have to be zealous, we must be on our guard against the hatred, the bitterness, the animosity that is swirling all around us. We must guard against being swept away by the systems of injustice and oppression that are often hidden beneath the surface.

And so we must hold fast to what is good, not lagging in zeal, but being ardent in spirit and serving the Lord. Persevering, now allowing ourselves to be overcome by evil, but overcoming evil with good.

As a model, we look to Jesus, who knew what was like to get beaten around by the storms of this life. He was on the receiving end of the worst evil this world has known. He experienced hatred and animosity from his own people. He was persecuted for doing the right thing. He experienced violence, betrayal, some of his closest friends and relatives turned their back on him. And yet, he blessed those who persecuted him. He held fast to what was good, and in the end he overcame evil with good. 

The reality is that we will mess up sometimes. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to slip and fall. But when we do, Jesus will be right there to pick us up again, to set us back on track, to bandage up our wounds and to provide the healing that we need.

So let us hold fast. Let’s not allow ourselves to get swept up in the negativity that is swirling around us. Let us treat others the way we would want to be treated, not repaying evil with evil. And with God’s help, may we overcome evil with good.

Psalm 17

August 23rd 2020

Rev. Curt Luthye, guest preacher

Psalm 17:1-7, 15

When I was a kid and my mother would start our bedtime routine, she would tell me to “brush my teeth and get ready for bed.” I would regularly look at her in all sincerity and full of youthful honesty and say, “I already did.” And I don’t know if it was because she knew me or had tried the same thing when she was a kid, she would ask the obvious follow up question, “did you brush them tonight?” And I would say, “no.” 

As I’m telling you this, I can imagine that you, especially all the mothers listening, are thinking in unison, “why would you say that then?” or maybe even, “gross. Go brush your teeth.” The reason why is simple.I can distinctly remember thinking, “of course I have brushed my teeth…this morning.” 

Or sometimes, I can remember thinking, sure, “I’ve brushed my teeth … before.” Meaning, at some point in my life. Yikes. In my developing brain, I was being completely honest. AND (and I think this is super important to understand) I was being honest in a way that didn’t take me away from doing what I was doing in that moment. Playing a game or reading or whatever I was doing. I was practicing Advantageous Honesty vs. Vulnerable Honesty.

I can also remember so many times as I was learning to preach, learning to think about scriptures and learning to write sermons this one consistent thought: How can I possibly communicate all this in a 15 minute homily? The grandeur, the majesty, the infinitude of God’s orchestration. How can I possibly say it in a way that is more succinct than the divinely inspired authors of scripture have so thoroughly done already? How could I possibly improve on Jesus’ own teachings and parables?

Sidenote: This is another reason for us to be reading and thinking about scripture regularly, even daily,  in addition to what we do on Sundays!

It was not really ever a “who am I to attempt it.” Although, that would have been (and still is) an appropriate question and I hope one that continues to govern me and keep me humble with an vulnerable honesty as I am honored to share my perspective on God from time to time. It was however, almost always, this thought: I’m too small. 

My language is too limited. There are not enough words or poetry or art or enough time for us to dwell in the richness of it all. We’re going to need to come back weekly for some more. We’re going to need to think about these ideas throughout the week.

We’re going to need to try to explain them to our kids in those precious moments when we talk as they are laying in bed tired, but not yet wanting to sleep. We’re going to need new songs written and new art created. We’re going to need it all. We’re going to need all 7.5 billion of us finding ways to praise him and honor him and love him. And even in this, I’m afraid, we would still be lacking. 

It’s with all this background (almost 25 years now) that I approached the scriptures laid out for us in the lectionary the week I wrote this sermon. Isaiah and Romans, as well as Matthew’s version of the feeding of the 5000 and the story of Jacob at Jabbok in Genesis, plus Psalm 17 which will be our focus today. How does one choose which amazing passage to focus on?!

I love all of them. Such powerful images and concepts in these scriptures.

  • God allowing us to enter his royal presence to plead our case. 
  • God pouring out gifts and gracious blessings on us, food with no costs, drink with no price. A standing invitation to come and eat and drink. It is here. You are welcome. Let us feast. (Isaiah 55)
  • Longing that all might know God in this deep and life-changing way. Anguishing like Paul that if only we could sacrifice ourselves so that our family might know the Father in this redeeming way. (Romans 9)
  • Jacob wrestling with God, Jacob the trickster, the conniver, the one always looking for the angle to better himself, his position, his bank account. Jacob the master at advantageous honesty. (Genesis 32).
  • Curing sick, having compassion, and always giving sustenance. (Matthew 14)
  • God humoring us, as if we are pure enough of thought and deed and intent to stand so boldly before him. (Psalm 17)
  • God calling us to the family table, as daughters and sons. The bounty of the Father is ours. (Isaiah 55)
  • We, at that table, learning the family business. Mercy, gracious gifts, bountiful blessings, openness, welcoming, essentially how to be hospitable. (Matthew)
  • Not to mention mirroring God as He is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast (read: predictable), sacrificial love, kind in our dealings, near to those who call.  (Isaiah 55)
  • God blessing us, even as we struggle against his very nearness. That same nearness which is our salvation and our breath and our life. (Jabbok)
  • God is kind to us, satisfying the desire of every living thing.
  • And finally, Jesus echoing the Isaiah passage in the feeding of the 5000. They came to feed on his wisdom and teaching and did not go away hungry in that or physically. And they didn’t have to pay.

Christ, again and again, blesses us with food with no costs, drink with no price. We are invited again and again, Come and eat and drink. It is here. You are welcome. Let us feast. There is enough in here to really sink our teeth for a year. 

But I couldn’t escape the nudge to speak on honesty. And that directed my heart to Psalm 17. Let’s read it again. 

Psalm 17:1-7, 15

17:1 Hear a just cause, O LORD; attend to my cry; give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit.

17:2 From you let my vindication come; let your eyes see the right.

17:3 If you try my heart, if you visit me by night, if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me; my mouth does not transgress.

17:4 As for what others do, by the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent.

17:5 My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped.

17:6 I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me, hear my words.

17:7 Wondrously show your steadfast love, O savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand.

17:15 As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.

On the face of it, this is another Psalm that should and does bring great comfort to many who are doing the right thing and find that others or even entire systems are not accepting of ‘righteous’ behavior or decisions. These persons and systems can often perceive doing the right thing, the godly thing, as weakness or folly or at a minimum impractical to get ahead. Certainly not advantageous! And in this, we Christians have this Psalm as an anchor holding us to the promise that regardless of what the present circumstances appear to be, regardless of the persecution or oppression that might actually be happening to us, or wrongs that seem to be winning, God knows the truth. And will make it right in the end.

He knows our hearts. He knows our intentions. He hears us and works to bring abundance from oppression. And as exampled in Christ himself, literal life from death, if we will obey Him through it all. But as we Christians who have been following for a while, who have been learning for a while, and have had a nice long time for God to rummage around the house of our heart to rearrange things and open dusty cabinet doors, cleaning things up, reordering and rearranging things, we may need to ask ourselves a follow up question when we read this passage.

Are we really that pure? Are we really innocent enough right now as we pray this Psalm? Are we authentically saying God would find no wickedness, no violence, no words we shouldn’t have said? Today? Right now? Are we really so in touch with our heart and mind, are we so consistent in our motivations as to even genuinely say this with any certainty? 

When I was younger, I think I would have prayed this psalm as is. Today, I know that there is a hodge podge nest of motivations  and influences, subtle and overt, known and unknown, uplifting and nefarious that I really need to parse out for me to be able to pray this prayer.

Marriage is certainly not necessary for everyone to discover or self-reflect to get to this understanding, but I will tell you that the spiritual discipline that has continued to illuminate just how hard I need to work (and maybe from how far away I am from being able to pray this prayer with clean conscience) is the discipline of being married. While being married to Beth who is amazing and patient, kind, long-suffering (Basically manifesting the fruits of the spirit in our relationship) I have nevertheless been consistently and repeatedly confronted with the question “how honest am I being right now?” Meaning how nuanced, how thoughtful, how vulnerable  am I being  in my thoughts and comments and responses?” “am I allowing the whole truth to be known?”

And as I continue to practice and get better at the honesty of being vulnerable, I can say that I am still working through my younger tendencies to say “yeah, I’ve already brushed my teeth, God.” Yesterday or sometime in my past.  Yes, God, at some point I’m sure that I asked for something that I needed with a completely pure heart that adequately considered your divine perspective and therefore you should answer my request as it would definitely advance your Kingdom agenda of drawing all people back to you. Come on.

This isn’t good enough. God is talking about the present. What we do, decide, say, and pray in the now is what counts. We who continue to mature, I think, get to the place where we start to pray more like Paul, Romans 9:3

If there were any way I could be cursed by the Messiah so they could be blessed by him, I’d do it in a minute. They’re my family. I grew up with them. (The Message) For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, (NRSV). God, I would do anything for my sister, my brother! Even sacrifice my own salvation so that they might know new life  in you!

Or better, like Jesus, who looked over Jerusalem and longed to gather up all the lost, hurting people like a mother hen. The good news for us today is that GOD DOES KNOW our hearts in their current state,  fully aware of the nest of motivations and influences and even still  promises all of this:

Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21

145:8 The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

145:9 The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.

145:14 The LORD upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.

145:15 The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.

145:16 You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.

145:17 The LORD is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings.

145:18 The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth 

145:19 He fulfills the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry, and saves them.

145:20 The LORD watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.

145:21 My mouth will speak the praise of the LORD, and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever. 

Amen

To the Lost Sheep

August 16th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus had been going around teaching and preaching, healing the sick, and performing miracles. As a traveling rabbi, Jesus had disciples and crowds of people who followed him wherever he went, listening to every word that he had to say.

But here, in Matthew chapter 15, Jesus has an encounter with a Canaanite woman that seems to influence the trajectory of the rest of his earthly ministry. Up until this point, Jesus has been preaching, teaching, and healing mostly in Jewish areas, to people who would have been at least familiar with the law of Moses, and who would have practiced the Jewish faith and religion.

But after Jesus’s interaction with this Canaanite woman, Jesus’s ministry seems to broaden and expand well beyond the borders of “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24).

That being said, I personally believe this is one of the most difficult and challenging passages in all of Scripture to understand and to wrap our minds around, because Jesus’s statements to this woman seem rather cruel and heartless — so unlike the kind and loving Jesus who welcomed children and was compassionate to the outcasts that we see throughout the Gospel accounts. We wonder, why does Jesus treat this woman so harshly? What was going on in this story?

The Woman’s Request

We’re going to zoom in and take a look at this story bit by bit. Then we’ll zoom out a little bit, and take a look at the broader cultural context that was going on around them. And then we’ll try to piece it together, and see what we can take away from this story.

Matthew tells us that Jesus and his disciples were in the district of Tyre and Sidon. This was Gentile territory, and as Jewish men they would have stuck out like sore thumbs. It would have been obvious to everyone that Jesus and his disciples were not from that region.

“Just then, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon’” (Matt. 15:22). At first, Jesus doesn’t answer her. Eventually his disciples come to him and urge him to send her away. Jesus seems to agree with them, saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15: 24). 

But then the woman comes to him, kneels before him, and says “‘Lord, help me’” (Matt. 15:25). The woman takes on a humble posture, kneeling before him, begging him to help her. She addresses him as “Lord” and “Son of David” — both terms that were respectful of him and appropriate for his position of authority as a teacher and rabbi.

But Jesus answers her, saying “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matt. 15:26). This is the statement, of course, that seems so unnecessarily cruel and heartless. Why would Jesus use an analogy of a dog? Was he referring to her as a dog? How is this in any way the kind and loving Jesus that we see throughout the Gospel narratives?

Loving Does Not Always = Nice

Well, if truth be told, although Jesus was always loving, he was not always “nice.” Earlier in Matthew 15, Jesus had called the Pharisees and scribes — the religious leaders of the day — “hypocrites” — right to their faces! (Matt. 15:7). Later, in Matthew chapter 21, we’ll see Jesus turning over the tables of the money changes and those who were selling animal sacrifices in the temple. None of these are particularly “nice” things to say or do!

Although Jesus was motivated by love in everything that he said and did, the way he expressed it was often in a “tough love” sort of way. Jesus wasn’t afraid to speak truth especially to those in power — particularly those who hurt or oppressed those under their authority, particularly religious leaders such as the scribes and Pharisees who placed undue burdens on the people. The Pharisees and scribes were people who, according to Jesus, honored God with their lips, but whose hearts were very far from God (see Matt. 15:8).

Calling the Pharisees “hypocrites” and turning over the tables of moneychangers who were blocking the way for people to pray and cheating them out of their hard-earned money was one thing. But we wonder: why does Jesus treat this woman so harshly, a woman who was desperately asking him to help her daughter, and who approached Jesus with humility and respect? 

The Rest of the Story

Now there are a lot of theories about what was going on in this story. The truth is that we may never completely know why Jesus said what he said, or exactly how he said it. 

But there are several pieces of cultural background and context that might help us understand a bit more about what might have been taking place in their interaction.

  1. First, we need to remember that, although Jesus was a man (and therefore held a certain level of power in Jewish society), as a Jewish man he was a member of an oppressed minority group, living under Roman occupation. We also know that Jesus was born to working-class parents who, by nature of their poverty, had to offer a pair of turtle doves or pigeons when they presented him in the temple as a baby. The offering of turtle doves or pigeons was a concession in the law for those who were too poor to afford a sheep (see Luke 2:24). We also know that Jesus’s father Joseph was a “tekton,” and although this Greek word is typically translated “carpenter,” it is really a more generic word for a “laborer.” Joseph was not necessarily the master craftsman that we often imagine, but perhaps more of a day laborer. And if that weren’t enough, Jesus grew up in the region of Galilee, an area of Palestine that was seen as “bucolic and backwater” by the Jews living in the more prestigious and powerful areas of Judea. And to top it all off, Jesus’s hometown was Nazareth, a tiny and insignificant town that was scoffed at even by other residents of Galilee (see John 1:46).
  1. This woman, on the other hand, hailed from the region of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon were wealthy port cities along the coast of the Mediteranean that had long been renowned for their production of the coveted and very expensive purple dye. The Gospel of Mark says that this woman was of Syrophoenician origin (see Mark 7:26), which means she was quite possibly a member of the Greek ruling class who had exploited the labors of the Jewish settlers in the surrounding countryside. As one biblical scholar puts it, “the woman belongs to a group that in a sense has been taking other children’s bread” (Keener, IVP N.T. Bible Background Commentary, 146). 

And so in some ways, we could see Jesus’s statement here as another example of “speaking truth to someone in power.” Or perhaps Jesus was putting into words the cultural or ethnic tension that would have existed between their particular people groups, and calling out some of the commonly-held presuppositions that their peoples held about one another. 

There’s one other interesting piece of cultural background that may or may not be helpful here, but may perhaps shed some light on their conversation as it relates to Jesus’s analogy of “dogs.” We know that the Palestinian Jews of Jesus’s day did not view dogs as household pets. “In Jewish Palestine, dogs were regarded as scavengers, but in well-to-do households influenced by Greek custom” (such as the household that this woman would have been from), dogs were often seen as pets (Keener, 146). 

Jesus says that it wouldn’t be right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. But this woman takes the analogy and turns it around on Jesus, arguing that even dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table — perhaps pointing out that in her culture, dogs were actually treated quite well.

Putting all of this together then, we see Jesus, the son of a poor, hard-working laborer, who grew up in a backwater town in a despised area of Palestine, approached by a potentially wealthy and powerful woman who was a member of an elite class of people that had continually marginalized and oppressed Jesus’s own people, asking him to heal her daughter. 

Rather than immediately giving her what she asked for and sending her on her way (despite her humble posture and desperate plea), Jesus articulates his sense of calling and mission to seek after and search for the lost sheep of the household of Israel. At the same time, he also puts into words the tensions that existed between her people and his.

In response to Jesus’s analogy, the woman argues that even she, as a Canaanite Gentile woman, was deserving of at least a little bit of Jesus’s love and compassion. She makes the case that Jesus was so powerful that even just a little bit of Jesus’s power could heal her daughter, and at the same time eloquently and concisely makes the case that ministering to those outside of the household of Israel would not in any way depreciate Jesus’s ministry and vocation to the Jews.

In responding in this way, the woman does not deny the tension that existed between their people groups. But nor does she give up. She persists. She even takes up Jesus’s analogy, turns it around, and uses it in boldness and humility to argue her case.

What amazing faith, humility and courage on the part of this woman! Jesus sees it, proclaims, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matt. 15:28a). And Matthew tells us that “her daughter was healed instantly (Matt. 15:b). 

To All The Lost Sheep

After this, we see what appears to be a broadening in Jesus’s ministry. He seems to be more intentional about reaching out to the Gentiles. In the following passage Jesus feeds 4,000 people, and there were seven baskets of food left over. In the Gospel of Mark we learn this miracle takes place in the Decapolis, a region of 10 Greek Gentile cities. Many commentators believe that the 7 baskets of food (as opposed to the 12 baskets full left over after he fed 5,000 people) symbolizes Jesus’s ministry to the Gentiles.

And even though Jesus had told his disciples here in Matthew 15 that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” (Matt. 15:24), at the end of the book of Matthew we see Jesus sending out his disciples to go “and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).

I for one am grateful for the example of this bold and courageous woman, who was willing to push back, who approached Jesus with boldness and humility. She persisted and didn’t give up. Her faith and humility and courage should be an example to us all.

We may never know why Jesus said exactly what he said. But I think in Jesus we can find a model of what it looks like to acknowledge the real tensions that exist between various groups of people in our society, but also to recognize faith even in the people we least suspect. 

So often we try to determine who we think will be open or receptive to hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ, but in doing so we may close ourselves off to the possibility that those who are very different than us might have great faith. But when we step out, when we proclaim the Good News even to those who we think might look down on us or despise us, so often God surprises us. 

And so let us follow Jesus wherever he may lead us. Let’s allow ourselves to be challenged to move beyond our communities, beyond the groups of people we may feel comfortable serving. And let us be generous in sharing God’s blessings and proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ freely to any and all who will listen!

And like the Canaanite woman, may we persist in great faith, and in humility and courage in bringing our prayers and requests before the Lord.